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Money and the Writer

We'd all like to be this popular.
We’d all like to be this popular.

Writers and money have been on the internet this week, notably in an essay [1] by a young woman writer, Merritt Tierce, who published a novel to high acclaim. In the article, she described her despair at being unable to make  money as a writer. Plaintively she wrote, “I would, right now, sign in blood a contract that would pay me $40,000 a year for the rest of my life. No advances. No royalties. No freelance checks, no honoraria, no prize money, no film or TV options. At this stage in my vocational life, $40,000 is probably well below my earning capacity.”

The essay irritated me, became a pebble in my shoe.  I wanted to just walk away, forget about it, but every time I took a step, there it was, gouging my instep. So why the irritation? I wasn’t sure. I mean, I actually agree with her: it’s damned hard to make an actual living as a writer, even when you’re doing well. Even when you’re award- winning and/or critically acclaimed or get a lot of rights abroad and a bunch of translations or movie deals. The money comes in giant chunks at unreliable intervals at vast distances from each other, or it comes in drips and drabs or not at all.

I get it. The money part of a writing life is not the easy part.

And yet, that pebble in my shoe would not shake out. I poked around the internet to see what I could read about writing and money. I found another essay [2] written by another young woman, Emily Gould, who made a big money deal for her first book, which then failed (8000 copies on a $200,000 advance) and couldn’t sell another. That’s enough money, and a big enough failure, that it really does cause problems for a writer—trouble that will be difficult to overcome.

In contrast, Tierce sold 12000 copies of a hardcover book and was paid a rather modest advance of somewhere between $50-99,000 according to Publishers Marketplace. No way she’d earn out the advance on those numbers, and probably her publisher considers that a failure, too, but they are not as challenging as Gould’s.

Both women talked about selling one book and then struggling to make a go of a career.  But Gould’s essay didn’t irritate me in the slightest.  She was panicked and poor and doing writing conferences on a shoestring, shamed into buying an admirer’s coffee even though she barely had any cash of her own. Any writer without some other means of support has probably been there. I know I have, many times. But instead of howling about the circumstances, she dove back into the work, trying to write something else, find her voice, live somewhere cheaper than Brooklyn.

Then she zeroes in on this:

Or maybe the problem—well, a problem—was that I felt entitled to several different lives. In one of these lives, my book has made me famous as a pundit and wit, the kind of person who’s constantly consulted on everything from what feminists should be enraged about to what jeans to buy. This person writes a great book every few years and travels and whips up impressionistic little essays for classy magazines when she feels like it, not because she has to. She’s single, or maybe she has a glamorous artist boyfriend. She is beautiful, but not professionally beautiful—beautiful like a French person. Like Charlotte Gainsbourg.

In another of these lives, my writing has given me the wherewithal to live within a bourgeois coziness I’ve fantasized about for years (my feminist, socialist education making me feel guilty all the while). In this fantasy I’m married to my true love Keith, we own a brownstone and my books pay the mortgage, we have children, and I write novels while they’re at school and cook delicious meals every night and the importance of the world’s approval recedes into insignificance because I have the much more solid and gratifying love of my family. But I still have it—the approval. Of course. Like Jennifer Egan (though I don’t know if she cooks). Like Laurie Colwin, but not dead.”

Bingo: she felt entitled to the Author Life.  Having recognized this, she goes on to write another book, sells a collection of essays, grapples with the life of a writer. 

Tierce, at least as she presents herself in this essay, wants to be an Author. Somewhere along the line, maybe in an MFA program (of which there are now more than 300 in the US), she picked up the idea that selling a book and getting good reviews entitled her to something more than what she got. She had the degrees, why didn’t she have the clout and social standing she thought she had earned?  What I want to tell Tierce is, “get back to work. Write another book. Write three. Write ten. Keep writing until you find the next thing.”

No one ever says to any artist, “You are not only going to be able to do work you love madly, but you’re going to be revered and admired and given high marks and make money enough to live comfortably.” When did that even become an expectation?

Yes, some writers break out, but only the heavens really know why. Brilliant books die quietly on the shelves and brilliant books make millions—or billions. Terrible books do incredibly well, and some of them never make any money at all. Making art is not like becoming a lawyer or a teacher. You can’t just study the right things in the right order and expect to be rewarded handsomely, attain high status in your neighborhood, and be Author.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love playing Author as much as the next writer. It’s really fun sometimes, getting dressed up to give a reading or to actually know genuinely famous people, or give an interview, sit on a panel giving my opinion. Humans like status and the reason we like the Author aspect of a writing life is that there is status in being an Author.

But it is dangerous to get caught there. Writers write. Writers roll up their sleeves and listen into the void and find something to put on the page, something as real and true as they can get in whatever genre fits them. Writers listen to the stories inside of them, the prompts about the things that are important to them. Writers seek to share, communicate. A writer is as thrilled by an earnest reader letter as by a great review by a big publication.

Of course we should be paid for our work.  And as with every other kind of art, there is always that  lurking possibility that a book will really take off, sell millions, become beloved in 20 languages, and we can buy a house in the south of France. That possibility doesn’t exist if you’re working in a hospital or an office or for the police force, right? Magic can happen.

But you shouldn’t sulk if it doesn’t. Get back to work now. Write the next book. Even if you do strike it rich, write the next book. That’s what writers do.

What kind of fantasies did you hold about the Author Life before you waded into this game? What draws you to this work, this world? How do you keep yourself going when the money is not what you wish?

Photo of Jordan/Katie Price signing books at Swansea by Ty [3]

About Barbara O'Neal [4]

Barbara O'Neal [5] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [6], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [7].

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